News & Blog

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Tommy Allen’s leadership has left its imprint throughout our community. As an artist, a writer, a content creator, a volunteer, and an activist, Tommy has made it his mission to be deeply engaged in some of the most important work in our community. 

Mark Peters has quietly but significantly established a new ethic on how to conduct business. As President and CEO of Butterball Farms, Inc. and co-founder of The Source, Mark recognized that business would thrive if employers took an active role in removing barriers for their employees. 

Marielle Levert, our 2021 recipient of the Marshall Pitler Volunteer of the Year Award, brings a unique perspective to her tutoring experience with the Literacy Center. In 2015, she and her family moved to Grand Rapids from their native Netherlands. Although she was a fluent English speaker, Marielle could relate our learners’ challenges of adapting to the language and customs of a new country. She set to work immediately connecting with other ex-patriots and English language learners in her adopted home. 

Written by Sara Miller, ATP Coordinator

For many, 2020 was a year of adaptation. For Lorena, it was no different. Unable to meet in person with her tutor, Steff, the pair turned to meeting virtually. But that came with its own challenges; Lorena had rarely used a computer until now. Although she was reluctant, she knew that in order to keep meeting she would have to do her best. Over the next few months they tackled the basics and mastered Zoom meetings together. One major challenge remained: email. 

About: Autumn joined the Literacy Center as a coordinator for the Adult Tutoring Program in October 2020. After completing a bachelor’s in English Language & Literature at Grand Valley State University, she began her career as an English teacher in Quito, Ecuador. She later earned a master’s in TESOL at Illinois State University and taught in Indonesia with the English Language Fellowship Program. She worked with a literacy council in Madison, Wisconsin for five years before moving back to her home state of Michigan.

About: Leandra is from the Dominican Republic, but lived in the United States approximately 8 years prior to relocating to Grand Rapids. Leandra received a Bachelor Degree in Psychology and a Master’s Psychological Counseling while living in the Dominican Republic. In January 2018, she entered the Family Literacy Program as a learner who wanted to improve her English proficiency. After reaching proficient levels at the North Godwin class, she was encouraged to apply for the AmeriCorps position and ended up joining the AmeriCorps team as a Learner Support Advocate. In August of the same year, Leandra was hired as the first permanent Program Assistant for the Family Literacy Team.

The Literacy Center of West Michigan has been named as a finalist in the U.S. Department of Education’s $750,000 Rethink Adult Education Challenge, a national competition to advance pre-apprenticeship programs. The organization is one of five finalists from Michigan and the only one from outside metro Detroit. The Literacy Center’s proposal creates a career pathway for Latinas to enter the mechanical, electrical and plumbing trades by providing English instruction, workplace readiness and skills training.   

About: Yilin Wendland-Liu is the new director of the Adult Tutoring Program. She joined the Literacy Center of West Michigan on August 24, 2020. Before her new role as the ATP director, she taught at Grand Valley State University as a visiting professor for three years and served as the Grand Rapids Chinese Language School Principal for two and a half years. Yilin currently serves on the Grand Rapids International Network Committee (GRIN) and Grand Rapids Community Foundation Scholarship Selection Committee. 

About: Laurie Zarzecki Emelander has been with the Literacy Center since 1994 and is the Finance Director. She has a Bachelor of Arts degree from Aquinas College with a double major of Business Administration and Religious Studies. Laurie represents the Literacy Center and other West Michigan nonprofit organizations on the statewide 501 Alliance Board of Directors. With her second major, she volunteers as an adult catechist and is on the Pastoral Council at her church.

Written by Carrie Roper, IET Coordinator

Sonia moved to West Michigan from her native Mexico in 2019, and found the Literacy Center soon thereafter. She wanted to practice her English to realize her goal of becoming a volunteer in the community. When Sonia tested too high for the Literacy Center’s services, she was referred to the drop-in English class we hosted at West Michigan Works.

About Me: My name is Mike Nassar, and I am in my fifth year as Director of the Community Literacy Initiative at LCWM. Prior to coming to the Literacy Center, I was privileged to spend over thirty years in public education as a teacher, principal, and leadership coach. I also currently work with elementary student teachers as a Field Coordinator at Grand Valley State University.

About: Libby Wahlstrom is a fundraising professional with 15 years of experience in the field. She began her career at an affordable housing nonprofit in Berkeley, CA before moving to Habitat for Humanity San Francisco and then on to her alma mater, Albion College. In 2012, Libby returned to her hometown of Grand Rapids to take the position of Development Director at the Literacy Center of West Michigan. In her role at the Literacy Center, Libby directs all of the fundraising and communication efforts for the organization. Libby graduated Summa Cum Laude with a BA in History and Women’s Studies from Albion College.

About: Diedre Deering joined the Literacy Center in September 2007 and currently serves as the Executive Assistant and Office Manager. Diedre supports the executive director, the board of directors, manages all office equipment and is the liaison between the office and our landlord, the City of Grand Rapids. She earned her B.A. from Davenport University in general business. In addition to her responsibilities at the Literacy Center, she is involved in several community organizations, serving as the president of the Monroe North Business Association and Neighborhood Business Alliance. She is serving her 2nd term on the Monroe North TIFA and her first term on the Cascade Township Planning Commission. She has served as a deacon and on the Pastoral Search Committee at Thornapple Community Church. 

About Me: My name is Megan Bowers, and I'm excited for my first year teaching in the Family Literacy Program. I grew up in Grand Haven, Michigan and graduated from Grand Valley State University with my Bachelor's in secondary English education and ESL.

Micki1“Compelled is a perfect word,” says Micki Benz, outgoing president of the Literacy Center’s Board of Directors. “I have not been compelled to join any board as much as I have been with the Literacy Center. It sucked me right in.”

About: Jennifer Summers is Program Coordinator for Customized Workplace English at the Literacy Center of West Michigan.  After receiving a B.A. in Romance Languages from DePauw University, she taught English in Japan for two years with the JET Program. The experience prompted her to pursue an M.A. in TESOL, which she earned from Eastern Michigan University. She spent several years teaching post-secondary English to speakers of other languages in Minnesota and Michigan before coming to the Literacy Center in 2016. 

In August, the Literacy Center of West Michigan welcomed Dr. Yilin Wendland-Liu as the new director of the Adult Tutoring Program (ATP). In her role, she leads the founding program of the Literacy Center—one that is designed to connect community members who have a desire to improve their English and literary skills with volunteer tutors. The pairs work one-on-one to address the learner’s personal goals. 

Having been a college professor for several years, teaching Mandarin and Chinese literature, history, culture and, at times, East Asia  culture, Yilin understands the challenges and successes  adult learners face in learning a new language. Speaking of her experience with college students learning a second language, she says, “I think one of the most rewarding moments for me as a language teacher was seeing how some of the students came in with zero background in Chinese language, in Mandarin, and then towards the end of the year, being able to conduct a conversation, speak the language, engage in daily conversation, write simple compositions, and understand.”

About me: My name is Carrie Roper, and I am the Integrated Education and Training (IET) Coordinator and an English instructor with the Customized Workplace English program. I first came to the Literacy Center in 2015 as an AmeriCorps member for the Family Literacy Program. I spent 2 and a half years serving in that role before becoming a part-time and then full-time member of the staff. I have taught classes here for almost 6 years, and have grown so much both professionally and personally. I was encouraged by my fellow staff members to get my Master’s in TESOL, which I received from Cornerstone University in 2018, and I also have a Bachelor’s in Social Work from Grand Valley State University.

About Me: I’ve been teaching ESL since 1990! I started teaching without any formal qualifications other than a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Public Relations at a Sporting Goods Company in Germany. I enjoyed it so much that I went on to get a certificate in TESOL and then went on to earn my Masters Degree in Linguistics/ TESOL. Since 1990, I’ve taught primarily Customized Workplace English, but have also taught general Adult Ed classes, Specialized courses (e.g. ESL for construction, for Industrial sewing, for Pharmacy Technicians, and for U.S. Citizenship ). I’ve taught ESL part-time for several institutions, but have been with the Literacy Center of West Michigan the longest since 2002!   

About Me: My name is Bree Straayer, and I have been teaching and tutoring English and Writing for the last ten years, primarily at the high school and college level. Before that, I worked as a licensed childcare provider for several years. This year, I graduated with my PhD in Rhetoric and Writing at Michigan State University, and being a "non-traditional" student with a full life, I am proud of that achievement. I have three children -  a daughter in college, a son in high school, and another son in middle school.

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